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Three reflections on Emerson

In the blur that has been these past three days—since I am writing this after midnight, perhaps I had better call it four—I have come to the close of Emerson’s second series of essays. Fittingly, perhaps, while reading “New England Reformers”, I had no unified idea for a post, so here are three scattered reactions upon its ideas.

[I] Another attempt to justify misreading Emerson

There is power over and behind us, and we are the channels of its communications. We seek to say thus and so, and over our head some spirit sits, which contradicts what we say. (607)

There is something more to what we say, than what we intend. It is not Emerson’s purpose here, I think, to condemn what has come to be called the intentional fallacy, the use of authorial intent in interpretation. The claim is milder, yet more invigorating nonetheless: intent is excellent, so far as it goes, but always something escapes it. We do not quite know what we say, and thus are imperfect guides to our own thought.

My readings or misreadings of Emerson take this thought as their license. A too slavish devotion to Emerson would not even leave me with Emerson. Why not, then, seek what is behind his thought? But keep in mind, here, what is likely to be found behind his thought. It can only be biography. What I am seeking behind Emerson is, inevitably, myself. I am the worst sort of reader: I put myself into the text, then pull myself back out, as if I had made some grand discovery.

Or so it stands when my readings succeed. Of course I will not deny that often, perhaps usually, they fail, and the sad result is a passable interpretation of Emerson. I shall try always to keep these to a minimum.

[II] The apparent impossibility of friendship

There can be no concert in two, when there is no concert in one. When the individual is not individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way, and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows, and with the other backs water, what concert can be? (599)

Here, then, is a recipe for friendship, or any other alliance between two individuals. Each is to be unified with herself—only then may she work with another. But is such unity within oneself possible? Let us look at what happens when Emerson, two pages later, tries to defend the possibility, even the inevitability of a union between two:

I do not believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes. (601)

A bold statement of the unity between two, a unity on which Emerson unconditionally insists. But the price of this unity between two is disunity within the individual.

I do not believe in two classes of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and Philip sober. (601)

We know, already, that Emersonian moods do not believe in one another. Moreover, in “Nominalist and Realist”, we learn that this disunity of moods makes sincerity a sort of impossibility: “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) What, then comes of Emerson’s “concert”? Insofar as concert is possible, insofar as the two classes melt into one, there is disunity lurking below—disunity that seems to preclude the very possibility of concert. Friendship, for Emerson, may very well be impossible.

[III] Experimental lessons of science

The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than the volumes of chemistry. (594)

I have a hunch that the point of this passage may be expressed in terms of property, of ownership. There is a sense in which human knowledge—that which is produced by contemporary laboratories at ever-increasing rates—belongs to no one, or only to very few. Those at work in the lab may finish a successful experiment with knowledge, but perhaps no one else will. This I tried to capture, with some of its ramifications, in my recent essay on skepticism. It is not enough to read a book to come to possess knowledge, so most of today’s knowledge remains predominantly unpossessed.

For this reason, I prefer the act of discovery that brings some piece of knowledge into someone’s possession, even if that act contributes nothing to human knowledge. In Emersonian terms: every mind must go over the whole ground for itself. What a mind does not go over itself, it cannot obtain by any other means. It is the activity of science that is experimental, whereas the uptake of science is ever so much conformity and disappointment.

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Conversation and mood

2014/04/17 2 comments

When I converse with Emerson, as I have been doing for two or so years now, are we talking past one another? I do not deny the charge. And if I wish to suggest, with Emer­son, or with my Emerson, at least, that there is something fundamental about mood that shapes all we do and are, then I must turn a wary eye on my own interactions with Emer­son.

My companion assumes to know my mood and habit of thought, and we go on from explanation to explanation, until all is said which words can, and we leave matters just as they were at first, because of that vicious assumption. (587)

I agree with my friend here, only I am in a mood, just now, in which I do not find the assumption quite so vicious as he. I know that, in a post such as my Fools of Nature, I have, for all my attempted faithfulness to my Emerson’s thought, impressed my own mood upon the subject matter, and so been left instead with my own thought. But this seems to me as it should be. I do not read Emerson out of love of Emerson, and I do not write about Emerson to flatter him.

I take it our friendship can survive this narcissism of mine. But, if not, if I must choose between the two, I shall take the narcissism.

Gifts and morality

“Gifts” is Emerson’s shortest essay, a mere four pages in the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures. Even still, as is characteristic of Emerson, it contains the greater portion of his thought, escaping well beyond its putative subject. In particular, I think this essay on gifts is a useful proxy for Emerson’s distaste for morality, or at least for moralism.

There are, I think, two crucial sentences in the essay. First: “Necessity does everything well.” (536) Emerson is looking for necessity—one of Emerson’s central moves is to identify the freedom of self-reliance with a rigid sort of necessity, for after all only one action will be true to the individual, and hence self-reliant—but he does not find it in our conventions of gift-giving. In these conventions, we are expected at particular times to give others gifts—Emerson mentions Christmas and New Year. We might readily imagine a sort of necessity here: at these times, you must give gifts, at least if you are to preserve your social graces. This might be better phrased impersonally: at these times, one must give gifts—for after all it hardly matters who you are. This, I take it, is rather like the must of morality—think of Kant’s categorical imperative and his insistence on universalizing maxims: impersonality is the order of the day.

So there is a sort of necessity, but for Emerson it is misplaced. “If, at any time, it comes into my head, that a present is due from me to somebody, I am puzzled what to give, until the opportunity is gone.” (535) There is necessity up to the point that some gift must be given, but no further. This loss of necessity leads to Emerson being “puzzled”, and then the opportunity is lost—but what opportunity?

Emerson does have an image of the ideal gift: “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.” (536) Such a gift is inherently personal, but then, Emerson wants to say, it cannot be governed by the impersonal “one must”. For how does “one” give a portion of “oneself”? The very idea is nearly if not strictly incoherent.

The problem resides, ultimately, in the idea of morality as a sort of service. Emerson could well accept the contemporary (but controversial) view that all morality is just an evolved lubricant for social interactions, coopted (since we have the brains to coopt it) to make life generally as pleasant as possible for as many as possible. Morality is just a sort of etiquette, on this view, which is why gift-giving, hardly a “moral” issue when morality is treated as venerable, may serve Emerson as a proxy.

The problem with service is that service is impersonal. Its value lies in the consequences and not in its cause. For this reason, insofar as morality is a sort of service, a consequentialist view of morality seems required. But now we get the second crucial sentence in Emerson’s essay: “They eat your service like apples, and leave you out.” (538) Service, by its very nature, leaves out the individual, for the individual is the cause, but the value lies in the consequences.

Emerson makes a motion, in his essay, to respect that there is something essential—as there surely is—in this sort of service, but it is a dismissive motion. “There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them.” (538) The motion is dismissive because Emerson is after something greater, an interaction in which people are not mere sources of consequences, valued only insofar as they cause the right consequences. In this interaction, which elsewhere in Emerson falls under the heading of “conversation”, the mutual meeting of two self-reliant individuals, “No services are of any value, but only likeness.” (538) Conversation lasts as long as, and no longer than, the likeness persists. In such interactions, there simply cannot be any question of morality, of service: etiquette is entirely left out of the equation.

This, I hope, shows how Emerson’s vision of self-reliance excludes morality altogether.

Proof of Emersonian concept

“The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for infirmity. It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both.” (354)

I have taken this quotation from Emerson’s essay on “Friendship”, of which it is the closing lines, but the same thought appears in some guise in each of Emerson’s writings, and I might have picked any essay at random to find it. At the core is his emphasis on what is absolute, on, not the hatred, but the deplorability of partial­ity. The friend must never provide for infirmity in his friend, but must treat him as a god—thus both are deified. Such, at least, is the Emersonian promise. But as my last two posts have noted, and others before them, Emerson sees that our world is not absolute, but partial. Society intermingles with individuality, infirmity with firmity, conformity with self-reliance, convention with justice. We might summarize an Emersonian formula: the absolute provides a firm response to the skeptic—if only we could grasp the absolute!

Yesterday I had an experience that served as a proof of concept, or at least an exemplification of the difficulties to be faced in the struggle against partiality. I met, in person for the first time, a person I have communicated with online for some time. Both of us would, I think, consent to being called Emersonians, if by that is meant a commitment to intensely personal creative misreadings of Emerson. We talked for roughly an hour and a half, covering a motley array of topics close to each of us. It was among the best conversations I can remember, and I would with great confidence call my interlocutor a friend.

Yet this conversation also served to make apparent the truth in Emerson’s insistence on the ineluctability of partiality. For even in this discussion among two Emersonians, I saw how we engaged in bits of social jockeying. I know I said things that downplayed those aspects of myself that are least “sophisticated” (at least in my mind), and I felt, at times, the same intent behind his words. For he would say something bold and worth saying, and then step back to correct, in advance, a misunderstanding—a misunderstanding to which I had not succumbed, but to which he could not trust me not to succumb. What is this but providing for infirmity? I can certainly say that this conversation had less of that than most, but even the slightest amount is enough to destroy absoluteness and guarantee partiality.

One topic we discussed was the importance of writing, the disappointments of meeting in person someone we know only by writing. For in writing you can simply write the society out of it. In reading the writing of another, you can have an encounter that occurs in solitude—a friendship without society, in short. But in meeting the person, society will not be kept out. Even in the best circumstances, conversation is partial. Even there, society intervenes.

Long Distance Communication

“We should meet each morning, as from foreign countries, and spending the day to­gether, should depart at night, as into foreign countries. In all things I would have the island of a man inviolate. Let us sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” (522)

Communication, for Emerson, takes place at long distance, or ought to. Emerson’s essay “Manners” is on etiquette, on fashion, and Emerson extracts what he can from the theme. It is a shifting, unstable ground, different in each part of the world, and in the same part at different times, but Emerson tries to locate what honor he can. What is good in fashion stems from self-reliance and a sort of primal power. “In a good lord, there must first be a good animal, at least to the extent of yielding the incomparable advantage of animal spirits.” (515) Fashion molds this animal nature, but does not eliminate it.

But ultimately, Emerson cannot say much in favor of manners. They are purely a social lubricant. “They aid our dealing and conversation.” (517) Yet, as the quote above shows, dealing and conversation is not Emerson’s home—it is a place of which he is greatly skeptical, which should be entered only occasionally, as a long distance voyage from one’s own island—an island which must “in all things” remain inviolate. Or, in other words, communication is, or ought to be, long distance.

Not only that, but it is, I suspect, in part to avoid the trappings of manners that Emerson prefers long distance communication. “Moral qualities rule the world, but at short distances, the senses are despotic.” (523) Amoral manners are required to preserve beauty when we see each other at close range—better not to be at close range at all, and preserve the absolute rule of morality. This is really one of Emerson’s most anti-social essays: morality is individual, manners are social, and manners only interfere with morality.

“My gentleman gives the law where he is; he will outpray saints in chapel, outgeneral veterans in the field, and outshine all courtesy in the hall. He is good company for pirates, and good with academicians; so that it is useless to fortify yourself against him; he has the private entrance to all minds, and I could das easily exclude myself, as him.” (516)

This antisociality manifests itself also in Emerson’s brief moment of touching upon other minds skepticism. The worry of other minds skepticism is, roughly, that the consciousness of an individual is a sort of bubble, a region to which its possessor has access first-hand, and all others only second hand. But if I can never experience what lies inside the mind of another, how can I have knowledge of another’s mind?

Much like in the essay I discussed yesterday, Emerson offers a resolution to the problem. The gentleman “has the private entrance to all minds”—the gentleman, in short, is not plagued by this skepticism. But this invocation of the gentleman comes at the start of Emerson’s essay, before the major reversal comes. I place this reversal at the point where Emerson says, “The persons who constitute the natural aristocracy, are not found in the actual aristocracy.” (527) But even more than the failure of society to pick out its gentlemen, there may be a paucity of gentlemen altogether, indeed there may be a total absence. For the gentleman here is another of Emerson’s fantasies, alongside the scholar in “The American Scholar”, for instance. The best we mortals are allowed is to “sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” We do not get a resolution to this skepticism; we must leave the island of consciousness inviolate.